The Acting Mind and The Supervising Mind

Last Updated: August 31, 2015

I’ve come to believe in the importance of always having two minds.

One of them is the acting—as in “action”—mind. This is the mind that’s telling your body what to say, how to move, whether to react. The acting mind needs most of your available attention because it’s responsible for most of your interactions with the world. It executes and responds. The acting mind is the tactical mind.

The other mind is the supervising mind. The supervising mind sits in the background and watches and listens. It’s there to pay attention to the big picture, to long term trends, to necessary changes in direction. The supervising mind is a background process, and usually only needs a small minority of your attention to keep it sustained; but every so often, it rises to the front, the pieces of a pattern fit together, and it gives the acting mind a strategy update—”you’ve been talking too much in this conversation, and Jane is looking increasingly agitated, we need to see what she has to say”.

How do we use this split?

In math, as I often tell my mentored students, it’s useful to keep your acting mind on the calculation or proof at hand, but it’s vital to keep your supervising mind around, watching out for errant sign-changes between lines and observing the large scale structure of your approach for invalid assumptions and logical connections to other ideas.

In conversation, the job of your acting mind is to be the most effective conversationalist possible, but your supervising mind is there to govern how much—or how little!—you should be talking, or to alert you when you need to change your tone, tenor, ask, or emote.

In athletic training, your acting mind is focused on executing the form or technique as your coach, video, or imagination described it, while your supervising mind is there to question whether what you’re doing is actually what your coach meant, or whether what you dreamt up is likely to be effective in a game situation.

While walking down the street, your acting mind can rule the conversation with your fellows, or your lonesome ponderings, but your supervising mind ought to keep an eye out for where you’re headed, and what sort of neighborhood you’re passing through to get there.

In short, in everything. Execute tactics with the grand majority of your attention, but keep a mind looking to strategy at all times. The best tactics in the world are useless if they don’t support a coherent strategy.